Authoritarianism, Book review., Books, Boris Johnson, Brexit, Democracy, Enlightenment, European Union, James Kirchick, Liberalism, Nationalism, Nigel Farage, Russia, The End of Europe, Vladimir Putin
How can James Kirchick apprehend the “end of Europe” when he has no ready starting-point? What exactly is ending and when did it begin? His every attempt to focus on what is under the microscope only makes it blurrier.
Kirchick’s book, which was published this March, starts by letting off a gunshot: “THE END OF EUROPE IS UPON US.” Yet he explains that what is “upon us” is not “the literal dissolution of a continent or the demise of a supranational institution like the EU.” We are instead “on the cusp of witnessing the end of Europe as we have known it for the past seven decades: a place of peace, stability, prosperity, cooperation, democracy, and social harmony.” So we have at least narrowed Europe down to “a place,” but a place that apparently excludes venues such as Poland that were behind the Iron Curtain for several of the “past seven decades.”
We whirr in again on Europe pages later when Kirchick refers to “a loss of faith in the universal, humanistic values of what might be called the European idea.” Readers might be growing impatient by now. Europe’s values are both “universal” and restricted to a particular geographical space? The British Empire had once exported Europe’s “universal, humanistic values” all around the world, to countries as diverse as Canada, India, Australia, South Africa (no sniggering!) and Kirchick’s own native USA. What then separates the proliferating controversies associated with the ANC, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump from the similarly illiberal phenomena that Kirchick is chronicling in geographical Europe? With this, we can discern that Kirchick is ultimately interested in Europe as a bloc and specifically the EU, an institution that is regrettably too small and boxy to ever fit his universal values into.
Kirchick is a great writer and The End of Europe is rollickingly polemical. You sense that if you turned your brain down a few settings and just enjoyed the prose, you could read his book without a hitch. He shares the penchant of writers such as Will Self for arcane words, but his own usage of them sounds natural and just. I like his description of George Osborne in China as “a folderol of obsequiousness.” He is also a journalist who can, in the cases of anti-Semitism in France and Hungary, really get on top of a subject.
Unfortunately, Brexit is never one of these subjects. Indeed, Brexit is largely the rock upon which the hull shatters. Kirchick is a thinker on the centre-right and a former writer-at-large for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; he is urgent in his condemnations of authoritarianism in Russia, Poland and Hungary. Paradoxically, though, he often appears to be distrusting and paranoid about the wisdom of free electorates. He seems uncertain that the people can ever afford a reliable bulwark against oppression.
For him, “Britons voted Leave, not least because the charismatic [Boris] Johnson told them to.” Nope, Britons simply voted to Leave. When Johnson sank without a trace during the subsequent Tory leadership election, it was to the mass indifference of the public. Kirchick portrays Nigel Farage as “telegenic and omnipresent,” a “father” of Brexit, who led a nation off into the sea with his breezy populism and easy answers. Farage was in fact marginalised by the official Leave campaign during the EU referendum and his famous “Breaking Point” poster was widely viewed as an embarrassment. Kirchick reaches for the lowest hanging fruit of all when highlighting that “in post-Brexit Britain, police logged a 500 percent increase in hate crimes.” Crimes that were only “logged,” without any ensuing arrests or convictions? This lapse in journalistic rigour is quite uncharacteristic of Kirchick and it is explained by a need to disqualify Brexit’s voters as competent decision-makers.
Kirchick wants to maintain that millions of voters were misled or blinded by prejudice, rather than independently discharging the responsibility that was actually asked of them: to consider whether or not the EU works. His argument that the UK should be more self-assured and internationalist is always worth hearing, but the trouble for him is that the Brexit decision was made partially in this spirit. He registers that many European economies are stagnating but then glides silently on, so that renewed global trade is left on the table as our only available solution to the disaster of the Eurozone. He implies that we should stick with the EU out of internationalism, or because isolation is worse, which requires the electorate to become reconciled with the EU’s pitiful economic progress. If this is all that can be expected of the values of the Enlightenment – basket-case economies – then no wonder the Enlightenment is in such peril!
Is it not a sign of healthy self-awareness on the part of the UK – or even self-education and maturity – that we have withdrawn from the world stage following a string of calamitous foreign policy interventions? Having trashed Libya and destabilised Syria to the point of ruin, the UK should now, Kirchick advises, blithely put these mistakes down to bad luck and commit to standing up to Russia.
His criticisms of Vladimir Putin should be written with needles on the inner corners of our eyeballs to serve as a warning to those who take heed. Many on the Left are today a bit too relaxed or dopey about the implications for global democracy if Putin continues to get away with all that he is doing. It is not hyperbole to describe Russia, as Kirchick does, as “the world’s leading counterrevolutionary force.” Yet all of the evidence of Putin’s machinations can never really stack up into anything consequential. Putin will only be ousted when a load of people in Russia decide that they don’t want him as their president anymore. Kirchick implies in a rather hopeless way that Western policymakers can somehow exert an influence over the situation by adopting the correct stance or projecting themselves more convincingly. It soon becomes clear that this isn’t a science.
Nations on Russia’s periphery cannot seriously expect not to have to negotiate their existences with this vast, energy-providing superpower. The reality is that Russia can easily swallow up Estonia and probably will and that Western electorates will never tolerate significant military action in Estonia’s defence. No amount of Churchillian rhetoric can dissolve such a reality.
Moreover, elements of Kirchick’s approach come near to undermining the very Enlightenment values that he is meant to be promoting. You cannot stand for freedom of speech and the next minute elevate the “discursive pollution” of Putin’s pet TV channel RT to an existential threat or almost a kind of military disinformation. You cannot preach democracy and then treat as illegitimate a leader who in 2015 achieved an 89% approval rating in one Levada Centre poll. You end up looking like you don’t trust your own greatest weapons.
Kirchick instead believes that our greatest weapons are not our values but our institutions. His error is to conflate the EU, an organisation that has been constructed to contain and weaken mass-participatory democracy, with the Enlightenment, the belief in the innate reason of human beings that should underpin democracy. Surely the Enlightenment can recruit better representatives on Earth than the EU:
But Euroskeptics like Farage and Johnson who claim that the EU has “failed” must answer the following question: In comparison to what? The Europe of the Thirty Years War? The Napoleonic Empire? The Third Reich? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the EU may be the worst system of governing Europe, but it is better than any of the alternatives.
This shows the danger of posing rhetorical questions when you have not considered all of the unexpected ways in which people are able to answer them. The EU has failed “in comparison to” national democracies, the pre-existing systems that overwhelming majorities of European voters still favour to the EU’s pooled sovereignty and its depleted, inauthentic parliament. Kirchick regularly writes about the EU as though it holds a monopoly over “liberal democracy” but this is not quite so clear-cut. The example of the UK parliament, which famously cannot bind its successors, stands in direct opposition to the constitutionalism of the US, German, and EU systems that places limits on the democratic will.
To alight upon the exact error within Kirchick’s analysis, it is to forge an iron rule out of the often reasonable assumption that international cooperation is preferable to nationalism. He gets into a similar conflict as those Marxists who could not understand how Irish nationalism was progressive whilst British nationalism was reactionary. He then rushes to an undue extreme in pursuit of simplicity. He will not factor in any qualitative difference between the chauvinism of a Russian nationalist and the fervour for democracy of a left-wing Brexiteer or a SYRIZA supporter. Or rather, he will not contemplate that a Russian nationalist might be equally right and wrong in prioritising the democratic will over international constraints and garbing this in chauvinism.
Supposing, however, that a nation on the borders of Europe suddenly abandoned authoritarianism right in the middle of the period that Kirchick is analysing, without any enthusiastic support from institutions such as the EU and NATO? Such a nation exists – it is Tunisia. Amazingly, considering the stakes that Kirchick has raised, Tunisia is not mentioned once in his book.
Although I have criticised The End of Europe from every angle, I still number it amongst my library’s useful volumes. There was a widespread feeling throughout the UK after the Brexit vote that we were somehow “turning our backs” on Europe, retreating, withdrawing, and “pulling up the drawbridge.” The End of Europe is persuasive in arguing that European liberals and democrats should best stick together. It is an important lesson.
Kirchick illustrates how “the Visegrád Four regional alliance of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia now show signs of developing into a populist, neo-authoritarian rump within the EU.” If we take into account Hungary’s institutionalised misremembering of the Holocaust, or last year’s warning from Robert Fico, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, that “Islam has no place” in his nation, then the UK comes to resemble a deeply tolerant country. Maybe, therefore, we should start to have a bit of self-respect. With our traditions of democracy and freedom of speech, we will be increasingly an indispensable ally to like-minded European politicians such as Merkel and Macron. But we cannot feasibly champion democracy if we have melted it down in Europe’s cauldron or traded it away for tariff-free access. Kirchick would do well to consider that the end of the EU might entail the beginning of a better Europe.